Archive for RXbirdwalk

Year of the Dog

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 11, 2018 by cliffdean

Five Minutes of the Dog was more than enough yesterday, when our arrival at Beckley woods coincided with that of a dog-herder who unloaded one lot after another of her yapping charges, walking them down the track a little way before returning to her big van to shovel out another contingent.

It took us quite a while to get away from the disturbance, but even as we regained sufficient calm to listen in, there were surprisingly few birds calling. It was only upon reaching deciduous plantations in the stream valley that some semblance of the woodland soundscape re-emerged. Besides Robins & 5 species of Tit, there were, beyond the branches, mewing Buzzards and croaking Ravens (neither of those present when I first started coming here). But the most refreshingly spring-like sound was that of Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming.

A recent article from Rare Bird Alert  (08 Feb 2018) proposes that the drumming patterns of individuals, though sounding much the same to us, is different  from male & female birds. It’s only very recently that I learnt that females drum too. And yaffle, in the case of Green Woodpecker (which was calling a little way over).

Another article (06 Feb 2018) seeks to explain why woodpeckers don’t wreck their brains with all that hammering.

Another question is how Grey Squirrels – the presumed culprits – position themselves to gnaw at reserve signs, this one for the SWT Flatropers Wood where, as you can see in the photo below, active management has been carried out to open up a sheltered glade for the benefit of butterflies by thinning out a dense thicket of young birches.

The main interest of this walk lies in the intensely varied woodland structure, resulting from different purposes and histories.

For instance, in this spot you can see ,to the left, remnants of former oak, with colonising Holly & Silver Birch, backed by a more recent plantation of Scots Pine & Larch while to the right is an area planted with Beech. The ground flora either side of the path is very different as result.

As we paused here, with rain arriving two hours ahead of schedule, my thoughts turned naturally enough to Black Treacle. We were munching on flapjack thoughtfully provided by Eliza. This week it was enhanced not by cheese nor chili, but by the iconic Lyle’s molasses.

I was thinking even more of the classic tin design, enigmatically featuring a dead lion. I guess those of us who know, know. But to an outsider this must seem very odd. Beyond the Biblical reference however, is the curious belief in ancient & mediaeval times that bees generated spontaneously from putrefying flesh, an apparent bit of lazy confusion with bluebottles. Even more surprising was that, while Golden Syrup was first marketed (in the green tin) in 1884, and in 1904 became the world’s first brand, tins of Black Treacle were first sold only in 1950!

Moving out of the woods into deeply puddled Bixley Lane, we cut across some little meadows which were planted up some 20 years ago with trees. There were more bird here than anywhere else but on account not of the uniform & rather sterile plantations right) but the unruly, ancient hedgerows which enclose them (left).

You can see why, from this detail of an outgrown Ash hedge, with its nooks & crannies, ivy & bramble. But apart from that obvious food source, I wondered whether the finches, tits, Treecreepers & Nuthatches foraging there (and mostly ignoring the plantations) were not following ancestral pathways in a way similar to hefted sheep on the fells.

Definitely unhefted (though, I don’t know..because I used to see them around these lanes 20 years ago) was a Hawfinch which flew out of cover to perch conveniently for a minute or so. I could hear others and a few minutes later caught sight of at least 3 in flight. And I thought: is this the Year of the Hawfinch? It’s certainly the Hawfinch Winter like no other in living memory but what happens next? Will they all clear off back to wherever they originated? Or will some of these immigrants remain (lots of Hornbeam! lots of Yew!) to form the basis of a reinvigorated UK population? To become as unremarkable as Little Egrets?

Tammurriata nera


RXbirdwalks in February

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on February 3, 2018 by cliffdean

All this month’s walks are at (hopefully) sheltered inland sites, along footpaths, forest tracks and quiet lanes, exploring the complex mosaic of habitats which make up the RX hinterland. The Beckley Woods route is new, the other two I’ve not done for a few years.

Saturday 10th: Beckley Woods

4 miles: Northwards through extensive deciduous and coniferous woodlands. Typical Wealden woodland species with quite a few of them singing by now – get to know the songs before too many join in!

Saturday 17th: TQ81S

4 miles: Mixed countryside north of Pett village, including Guestling Wood, arable & grazing land in the upper Pannel Valley. Wood and farmland species.

Saturday 24th: Mountfield & Glottenham

A longer walk of 5 miles: High Weald and river valley, including the magnificent avenue of ancient Sweet Chestnuts, Glottenham Ponds and the moated site of Glottenham Castle.

If you would like to join any of these walks contact me at (note new email address) for joining details.

New Year almost

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 5, 2018 by cliffdean

Tuesday January 2nd 2018: Since I’d wanted to join the Rye Harbour walk on the First (it was wet and windy but 18 people turned up, stayed the course and enjoyed watching murmurations of Golden Plovers & Lapwings as well as some scarcer birds such as Black-necked Grebe & Red-breasted Merganser) the customary RXbirdwalk was displaced till the following day when it was dark and grey but at least dry – till 11 o’clock.

This meant a change of plan to make the most of the two hours available: drive to the Pools and look out from the seawall and beach. There were plenty of birds again – the sky often full of Lapwings, Curlews, Dunlins & Starlings flushed up from the soggy pastures by unseen predators or maybe just popular panic. Sorting from these moving silhouettes the small groups of Golden Plovers & Ruffs was a stimulating challenge as was the separation of grey roosting waders into Grey Plover, Knot & Dunlin as they huddled on the shingle, thanks to the miserable weather undisturbed by strollers .

Likewise, the lines of birds roosting behind the roadside pool provided an interesting task since they comprised several species of gull & wader. Then there were the many dabbling and diving ducks with a Marsh Harrier cruising over them.

So, by the time the New Year Drizzle arrived half an hour early we had seen quite a variety of birds (40), though when I came to compile it the lack of you-see-them-every-time species such as Blackbird, Blue Tit & Robin felt strangely unbalanced. Once you get east of the Toot Rock bushes though, they just aren’t there.

Carpinus & Coccothraustes

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on November 10, 2017 by cliffdean

In most of Europe Hawfinches are a typical woodland species, in E Poland for example hardly worth a mention, but on this side of the water they are scarce, shy, treetop birds, detectable only by their sharp, metallic ticking contact note and for the most part visible only as fat little silhouettes moving rapidly through the twiggery.

Equipped with massive bills adapted for cracking seeds as hard as cherry stones and taking chunks out of bird-ringers’ fingers, they are attracted to Hornbeams so flocks have been seen locally, attracting even rarer birdwatchers into the jungles of the High Weald.

In the last month, however, here has been an extraordinary southerly movement on the continent and an unprecedented influx into Britain with large flocks noted in many places where one would normally struggle to see them. Most of those I’ve seen have been singletons, appearing out of the blue, but I saw a couple of flocks of about 30 way back in the 70s. One was at Lullingstone Park near my home in SE London, where they gathered around ancient knotty Hornbeam pollards such as those drawn by Samuel Palmer.

The other was at Parham Wood, a square island of trees in an ocean of arable farmland. I could often hear the clicking there but it was tantalisingly hard to get a glimpse. It was at the time that East Anglia was blighted by the presence of the USAF but on that one occasion we had reason to be grateful to them for were standing in a ride when suddenly a huge transport plane roared low overhead, flushing a stream of Hawfinches across the gap.

Killingan Wood by Martyn Comley

For various reasons I’ve been unable to get to those sites where they’ve been most reliably seen but there’s so much Hornbeam around that many smaller woods might hold a few so I’ve been looking at places they’ve turned up before. Foremost among  these is a small area to the north of Sedlescombe where they also appear to have bred in recent years, so last Saturday’s RXbirdwalk convened there in the hope of tracking them down.

No luck, unfortunately though the woods look fabulous, with golden leaves backed still by green even at this late point in the year, many intriguing historical features, frequently varied leaf litter according to the dominant tree species (Hornbeam for charcoal, Sweet Chestnut for hop poles) and plentiful woodland birds such as Marsh Tits. Early in the walk we had seen great flocks of Woodpigeons either heading on glittering wings out to the coast or swirling around in search of a crop to ravage. Down at the reservoir there were Tufted Ducks, GC Grebes, Gadwall, rather fleeting views of Teal & Mandarin and even a glowing Kingfisher, while the walk back along narrow lanes included 4 Buzzards overhead and a brilliant Grey Wagtail strutting about on a cottage roof.

On Monday, in  I headed for another potential site at Ashes Wood,but even as I came out of my house a huge crowd of Woodpigeons swept overhead, then during the drive westward I was dangerously distracted by the spectacle of long ribbons of birds coming in from the Weald and taking a left at the Ridge to exit over the sea. Though this spectacle is typical of bright frosty mornings in early November it’s a few years since I’ve seen it and was tempted to give up on the Weald and stop instead at Hastings Country Park to savour its splendour. Instead, however, I crept along in morning traffic, keeping one eye on the car ahead and the other and the other on clouds of pigeons arriving over the rush-hour.

Although the coast had remained green, a mile inland car windscreens were frosted and the further I went inland, the whiter the fields. Beyond the colourful foliage of Ashes Wood (most of which was very cold & silent) the tiny boxed-in meadows shone silver, with long wriggling blue shadows stretched across them from outgrown Hornbeam hedges. At last, as I stared into Western Hemlocks for a glimpse of a Goldcrest, I heard Hawfinches clicking behind me where at least four were moving around in the tops of Birches (where two were feeding in the open) and Hazels (where more were shifting among the big yellow leaves).

Down by the mill pond, I’d just admired a smart new stile replacing its challengingly rickety predecessor when I met the new owner of the site who’d installed it. Unlike the previous incumbent whose management resembled that of an urban park, this lady hopes to make more of the property’s wildlife potential and to that end has already sought advice from SWT. shortly after her patient dogs had pleaded with their eyes to move on, a couple of Hawfinches appeared out in the open, perching in the tops of the Field Maple (for food) and Swamp Cypress (for surveying the scene) in the photo above. After that, however, no more sign and what’s more the footpaths to the west have fallen out of use and are overgrown with brambles, obstructing access to more interesting Hornbeam woodland up a once-dammed ghyll.

Yesterday I was carrying out a Sussex Winter Bird Survey near Beckley Woods, another occasional site for Hawfinches and about a mile away, several had been seen in an old abandoned orchard in Beckley itself. When 2 flew over me near Starvecrow Lane it wasn’t the best of views since I’d got my binoculars over my shoulder, had a notebook in one hand and had just got something in my eye, but had evidence at least of their presence.

Low water

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on October 30, 2017 by cliffdean

Sunday, Darwell Woods: the dense streamside vegetation close to Cackle Street was busy with birds, initially small flocks of Goldfinches & Siskins in the treetops (Redpolls audible but hard to see), then several Marsh Tits, both vocal and visible, accompanied by Blue, Great, Coal & Long-tailed tits, Goldcrests, Nuthatches, a Treecreeper and a GS Woodpecker.

Thereafter, the action was more sporadic, though still with regular Marsh Tits, as we made our way eastwards alongside an ancient hedgerow, At first, the path was ploughed up by horses (it’s a bridleway after all), then deeply incised through former usage by off-road vehicles. In both cases, the return to slithery, sticky Wealden  conditions was, I suppose, a seasonal delight.

East of the Conveyor Belt and past The Yellow Jeep, the deep & unwelcome carpet of Crassula helmsii was visible through the sprawling waterside willows, denoting a water level lower than I’ve ever seen it. This doesn’t mean that the level is unusually low, rather than that I don’t come here often enough to see it. Edging out of cover to see if any birds were frequenting the silted headwaters, we were surprised to see a Great Egret standing in the stream, with a Little Egret asleep to one side. This could be the first record of Great Egret for the site., perhaps unsurprising since they are quickly increasing and spreading in the area.

Just as interesting was the exposure of an old dam which I suspect held back the hammer pond for the nearby furnace. The bank of iron slag is topped by sandstone slabs to which are attached clusters of Zebra Mussels. So, side by side we have two very problematic invasive introduced species: a plant and a mollusc.

The view out onto the lake is normally much obstructed by trees, so it was rather exciting to walk out across this old dam to scan the open water. Apart from Tufted Ducks, Great Crested Grebes & Cormorants, there were Black-headed & Herring Gulls and Canada Geese on the far banks as well as some other ducks just too distant for identification without a telescope.

Unfortunately this was also the case with a tantalising small grebe keeping company with half a dozen distant Tufted Ducks. In spite of prolonged and squinting we were unable to get a clear enough view of the head pattern to decide for sure whether it was Black-necked or Slavonian – another good record in either case.

Heavy chunks of iridescent iron slag are bubbled and rippled like lava.

On the move

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 18, 2017 by cliffdean

On the Winchelsea Beach seawall, as we set off last Saturday, we were passed by constant flocks of Goldfinches which often fluttered down onto the roadside teasels. And if you turned your head in the other direction you could see Gannets gliding and diving on the horizon while from overhead came the trilling of Skylarks making landfall. I had made this walk a couple of times already in the last week and was surprised at how much had changed: the numbers of Chiffchaffs had decreased and House Martins, so very numerous before, were entirely absent, both species having plainly made their way south.

Among the passing Goldfinches we could often hear Siskins and Redpolls. While the former stayed in the air we were lucky to have good views of the latter as they alighted in bushes on the Beach Field. This is more than can be said for the several Goldcrests we came across, which typically hid in high canopy, showing mostly in silhouette.

The Fairy-ring Field by Castle Farm held its usual crowd of Pied Wagtails and just after one of the group asked if it were too late for Yellow Wagtails, two of them appeared – quite late in the season – both washed-out looking juveniles. Towards the Castle we found a couple of Stonechats though no Curlews or Egyptian Geese.

As we approached Castle Water, something greatly disturbed the birds upon it, which rose up in a great honking of Greylags and a range of ducks disappearing into the distance so we prepared to be disappointed but, whatever had caused the panic, things had settled down by the time we got into the hide. As usual there were hundreds of birds though not the range of waders there has been, nor the celebrated Little Gull. We did, though, have excellent views of hunting Marsh Harrier and a more distant Buzzard.

On the way back we ran into a Treecreeper on one of the big, gnarled willows in The Wood and at the southern end of The Ocean found a Great Egret feeding alongside a few Littles, providing a useful direct comparison of size, structure and stance.

As usual we saw a good range of species, numbering 67.


On the wire

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 4, 2017 by cliffdean

Encouraged by reports and photos like that above, taken by Tim Waters in the Brede Valley (it shows Whinchats, a Stonechat & a Spotted Flycatcher all on the same bit of fence), I decided that Combe Haven, a similarly rough river valley would offer similar species and therefore be a good venue for Sunday’s RXbirdwalk. It’s rare that these ideas work out exactly (see “It’s Not A Zoo”), the weather was dull and cool, the few warblers shy and hard to see.

Things began to look up as we heard Greenshank calls coming from the attenuation pond down the Powdermill Valley and once we got down there we had good views of 2 of them flying low over the water among a flurry of Sand Martins. Other species occupying the shallow, weedy water were Grey Heron, Cormorant, Little Grebe, Mallard, Gadwall, Mute Swan, Moorhen & Coot. The otherwise silent tree cover across the stream suddenly burst into life at Adam’s Farm when a tribe of Long-tailed Tits passed through, drawing in its wake Great & Blue Tits, Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and a couple of Spotted Flycatchers.

Further on, the cluster of bushes beneath the old railway embankment was busily clicking with Blackcap contact notes. They were difficult to see as they dashed across small gaps and over our heads, along with other fleet passerines but what at first had seemed a couple of birds was probably nearer twenty. We also had good views of Lesser Whitethroat and less good ones of a young Bullfinch which kept popping up.

Along the river bank we finally ran into a group of 4+ Whinchats in instructively varied plumage, along with Common Whitethroats and resolutely hidden Chiffchaffs & Willow Warblers. The useful-comparison Stonechats came later as we joined the Greenway by Acton’s Farm: a smart juvenile and an exceedingly threadbare, tailless, moulting male.

Those ex-grazing meadows south of the Link road embankment are part of the SSSI but have not been managed for years and are degenerating into willow scrub. No-one wants to take responsibility for them or even seems to know who owns them, while my emails to Natural England in Lewes have gone unanswered. Left for much longer they will cost a fortune to get back in good condition.

The wooded parts of Royal Oak Lane are not usually very productive but upon stopping to listen for Treecreeper we found ourselves looking (albeit vertically) at a Firecrest and then the twitten dropping back down to the Plough was busier than I’ve ever seen it, with Great, Blue, Coal & Long-tailed Tits, Blackcaps, Goldcrests, GS Woodpecker, Nuthatch & Treecreeper.

Altogether we saw 56 species.

Otto Dix: Totentanz